Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hidden Figures

Posted by Kumar N on 1/15/2017 02:50:00 am with No comments


It took couple of scenes, before it dawned on me what they meant by 'computers'. Who knew there were walking and talking 'computers' with those looks more than 60 years ago, I certainly didn't.

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Ever since I came to know Google and others are actively promoting this movie with free shows to inspire girls, especially African American girls to take more STEM courses in general, but computer science courses in particular, I have been waiting for a chance to watch 'Hidden Figures'. Finally took kids last night. 


Too often we are presented history through the story of one person who became great by doing great things, be it a man or woman. A larger-than-life, superhuman personality who defied the odds and achieved the impossible is a familiar thread that runs across different times and societies. We love those cathartic moments in the end. 

However, in reality history is made with every breath and move of all of us combined. The 'Great Man Theory' does enormous disservice to each one of us. It is oblivious to untold and intangible yet palpable contributions of millions across the globe.

This movie shows an important time-slice from the lives of three women. But it is the story of thousands of African American (and other women), who worked as 'computers' labelled under 'Colored Computers' with separate areas for colored people at NACA/NASA beginning in 1940s until IBM came along and made their jobs obsolete. They were ordinary people, not political revolutionaries leading movements. Yet, they made the history. They changed the world with their contributions; they certainly erased some lines that were drawn in sand.

I do not want to spoil the experience by talking further about 'girls' - as they were frequently referred to, not as 'mathematicians' which is who they were - their struggles, their silent accomplishments etc. 

All I can say is that, there were some poignant moments along the movie.

A self-taught, self-motivated Dorothy Vaughan is told by her boss: 'Despite what you may think, I have nothing against you'. To which Dorothy replies 'I know'. 'I know you probably believe that'. It not only froze me for a second, but also raised a question inside. Inadvertently, have I ever said similar things to anyone, even worse, believed such myths myself?

There was a moment when Harrison - one of the NASA heads to put the man safely in space - is brought to awareness by daily challenges that are faced by his subordinate and the lead woman of the story Katherine Johnson, he then takes a hammer into his hands, and starts dismantling the barriers, literally! I couldn't help but ponder on my privileges, if I would be enjoying them today without people like him and Johnson once lived in this world. 

It was absolutely a fine moment when Mary Jackson approaches the Judge making her case, to let her attend Virginia college courses without which she cannot proceed to become aerospace engineer, but cannot enroll as a black woman in whites only college in a segregated state. 

There was heart-sinking moment when the door was closed right in Kathreen Jackson's face, leaving her irrelevant. The silence makes the time thick.

I couldn't help but realize that we reveal to ourselves through those unseen webs, invisible fences and glass ceilings that act as walking-floors for others among us.

In the end though it was pleasing to see Dorothy is addressed with the deserved respect as Mrs Vaughan.

It was pleasantly surprising to come to know that the revered american hero John Glenn in fact really asked to check the IBM computer's math outcome, with the 'girl' Kathreen Johnson, before he decides to take off.

There were lot of fun moments too, although it wasn't fun to have your daughter lean on to you and whisper in your ears with sparkle in the eye 'Do you know what that Euler's method is? I know'. I could barely pick up on the word, although I now vaguely recall school days skimming through it. Or, it is my imagination :)


With that I end here strongly urging everyone to take your kids with you, when you go watch this movie. 

Oh, by the way, Katherine Johnson is honored by US Govt, at the age of 97 with Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in US.



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